American STEM heroine Katherine Coleman Goble Johnson, heroine of space exploration, died February 24, 2020, at the age of 101. Katherine Johnson was the mathematician who calculated the orbital mechanics for Alan Shepherd and John Glenn as one of NASA’s “colored computers.” Her story was told in the Oscar-nominated movie Hidden Figures, where she was portrayed by Taraji P. Henson (Person of Interest, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Wreck-It Ralph 2: Ralph Breaks the Internet, Minions: The Rise of Gru.)
She was born Katherine Coleman August 26, 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. Her aptitude for mathematics was apparent from an early age. She attended elementary school from the age of five and was almost immediately moved up to second grade. She entered high school at the age of ten and graduated at fourteen.
At the time, White Sulphur Springs did not have a high school (nor junior high) for African-American students. Her family moved back and forth from White Sulphur Springs to Institute, West Virginia, so Katherine and her older brothers and sister could go beyond sixth grade. Her mother moved the children to Institute every fall, and then in summer they returned to White Sulphur Springs, where her father was a farmer.
It was in high school that Johnson developed an interest in astronomy. She was granted a full scholarship to West Virginia State College. In 1937 she earned bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and French summa cum laude from West Virginia State College. She became a teacher after graduation, working at various schools in Virginia and West Virginia.
In 1939, she married James Goble. They had three daughters: Joylette, Katherine, and Constance. She was selected as one of three African-American students to integrate the graduate program at West Virginia University in Morgantown, WV. Her husband fell ill, making it impossible for her to complete the studies necessary to obtain her Master of Science degree. She had to drop out of grad school and go back to teaching to support their family, though she would later be granted seven honorary doctorates, including one from WVU. James Goble died in 1956.
In 1952 she learned that the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, the predecessor of NASA) was hiring African-American mathematicians. In 1953 she took a job with NACA. She calculated trajectories, launch windows, and emergency return paths for Mercury and Apollo. When NACA became NASA, she remained. She would eventually work on the space shuttle program and Landsat. John Glenn insisted she personally double-check the computer’s math before launching Friendship 7.
She remarried in 1959, to James Johnson. For fifty years, she was a member of the congregation of Carver Memorial Presbyterian Church in Newport News, Virginia and a member of the church choir for decades.
I can write no better eulogy for Dr. Johnson than the tribute paid her in 1998, when she was awarded the first of her seven honorary doctorates.
“You have lifted our hearts and minds to the stars. Your genius in mathematics and physics helped obliterate physical barriers and greatly contributed to placing the first American astronaut in space. You confronted the obstacles imposed by the forces of Nature and helped launch our country into the space frontier. For your contribution as a pioneer in aerospace technology and your continuing pursuit of excellence in education, the State University of New York at Farmingdale proudly confers on you, Katherine Johnson, the prestigious Doctor of Laws degree, ‘honoris causa’.“
Katherine Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2019. NASA granted her the Silver Snoopy Award in 2017. NASA named two buildings in her honor, the Katherine G. Johnson Computational Research Facility in Hampton, VA and the Katherine Johnson Independent Verification and Validation Facility in Fairmont, WV.
All in all, she had three daughters, six grandchildren, and eleven great-grandchildren. Although her achievements were unknown at the time, they were at least recognized in her lifetime. She is now recognized as an international STEM heroine. Mattel commissioned a Barbie doll in her image. Lego planned a Katherine Johnson mini-fig, but she requested they not use her image. President Barack H. Obama said, “Katherine G. Johnson refused to be limited by society’s expectations of her gender and race while expanding the boundaries of humanity’s reach.”
Susan Macdonald is the author of the children’s book “R is for Renaissance Faire”, as well as 26 short stories, mostly fantasy in “Alternative Truths”, “Swords and Sorceress #30”, Swords &Sorceries Vols. 1, 2, & 5, “Cat Tails” “Under Western Stars”, and “Knee-High Drummond and the Durango Kid”. Her articles have appeared on SCIFI.radio’s web site, in The Inquisitr, and in The Millington Star. She enjoys Renaissance Faires (see book above), science fiction conventions, Highland Games, and Native American pow-wows.